Nassim Solimanpour is the playwright who created “Blank.” He also created “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” another play which must be performed by a different actor each performance. Now the reason I bring that up right away, at the beginning of this review, is just to let you know that you can never see the play I saw. And I can never see the play that you might see. This was a truly unique theatre experience.
‘Blank’ created a space for a thoughtful process that led to a creation that led to a sense of connection—maybe not with that particular group of people for longer than the theatre event, but with everyone, because we all have stories and how they are told depends on who is in our community at many levels. Because how our stories are told and remembered defines us as humans.
During “Blank” we all created a life story—a past, a present and a future—all by filling in the blanks in a sentence. But even better, we created a community in response to the outside influence of the actor, the personification of the script. In this case, the outside influence was actor Tiffany Byrd, who, true to the playwright’s instructions, had never seen the script—so no rehearsals, no peeks, just a cold performance. That requires a deep level of trust from the actor, and since the audience/community is taking its cues from her, from us as well.
This was a very immersive experience. Everybody participated, some more quietly, some more loudly, some quickly, some slowly, but we all were drawn in.
The actor reads from the binder that the play is in—every word, including directions, without any digressions or input of their own. The directions are read, there is a quick check for comprehension, and then the sentences with the blanks to be filled in are read and filled in by either the actor or the audience.
After an initial icebreaker, where we learned a little about Tiffany, partly through the device of The Sniper. This was a sniper who got to say three words and Tiffany had to respond with one sentence. This device worked as she became a little emotional over the last word—the progression was from wry self-deprecation to a deeper self-annoyance and then to an unexpected visceral truth. But because of the structure, there was a sense of protection built in. It all felt real, not like a violation of privacy, because it was just one sentence that she presented in response to The Sniper’s word.
Then the work of creating a life story began. First The Character was chosen—Tiffany asked for volunteers and then, reading from the script, said she could choose someone. A lady visiting from Los Angeles volunteered at that point; it was an oddly sacrificial thing to do. Tiffany read from the binder and The Character filled out the blanks on pieces of paper which were tacked to a board.
Then The Friend was chosen and began filling in the next set of blanks while sitting next to The Character. You could see the connection, however brief, forming between the two.
During all this, the audience wasn’t passively watching. We had to fill in blanks of The Character’s life as well, and the pace grew faster and faster each round. Not everyone is comfortable with speed such as that in speech/action, and Tiffany, following the directions in the script, just passed on to the next person and the next. You could see the initial discomfort with a perceived meanness in not giving people a chance to speak in their time, but you could also see her trust the process, and as a result, so did the audience. Responses did come faster, more instinctively.
At the end—we created a life for and with The Character, with a beginning (childhood), present, and future (2051 I believe it was) and up to the funeral. It wasn’t morbid—it was more that one got a sense of all the chances and random events and choices that make up a life, and one piece of that brought about 20 strangers to a theatre on a Sunday afternoon to step off a cliff and build a life(in words) for someone and do it together.
So you see, no one can ever have the same experience as the one we had in the Anacostia Playhouse. Your Character, Sniper, Friend and Actor will be different and create a different community. It won’t be better or worse, but a unique community of that moment and time and place and participants.
“Blank” created a space for a thoughtful process that led to a creation that led to a sense of connection—maybe not with that particular group of people for longer than the theatre event, but with everyone, because we all have stories and how they are told depends on who is in our community at many levels. Because how our stories are told and remembered defines us as humans.
If this comes to a space near you—go. Experience. Trust the process. It’s not easily forgotten.
Running Time: Roughly 70 minutes with no intermission.
“Blank,” is part of the “Word Becomes Action III festival being staged by Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse. For more information on the festival, please click here.